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Steer Clear of Purchasing Stolen or Forged Art

5 ways to lessen the chances

Especially if you’re just starting out as an art buyer, it can seem like a challenging world to enter. The worst case scenario: unknowingly purchasing forged or stolen art. These five steps can help you protect yourself:

  1. Only buy from reliable sources.

    Prominent dealers and major auction houses make every reasonable effort to avoid trafficking in stolen goods. To protect their reputation, a reliable dealer even may be willing to refund your money if a title issue should arise.

  2. Educate yourself.

    Before purchasing an item, learn all you can about its provenance. Be wary of grandiose claims of ownership that can’t be corroborated independently or if basic information is missing on valuable artwork. A good place to start is to consult the artist’s catalogue raisonné, or compilation of work, which often includes provenance details. The International Foundation for Art Research ( maintains a database of catalogues raisonnés.

  3. Check online databases.

    A number of public and private databases contain searchable up-to-date information on stolen art. One comprehensive resource is The Art Loss Register (, an international database of registered lost and stolen art, antiques, jewelry and collectibles.

  4. Conduct a title search.

    You can retain legal counsel or hire an investigation service to conduct a title search. However, conducting a title search is often hampered by the opaque nature of the art market. Nor do certain important documents, such as certificates of authenticity and insurance appraisals, address ownership issues – they only confirm the value of a piece, not its legitimacy.

  5. Insure your assets.

    Even with a specialized fine art policy, coverage for fraud or false title is usually excluded or limited. You may want to supplement your underlying fine art insurance with formal art title insurance from a company that offers such coverage. Such a policy will guarantee a clear legal title for the value of the work when you purchase it, provide full defense protection in the event of a title claim, and enable you to avoid legal liability should you later transfer ownership of the work.

The definition of what constitutes clear legal ownership is becoming increasingly complex and can vary among jurisdictions, whether the issue involves traditional theft or more expansive title-related issues. If you come to suspect that a piece of art you already acquired may not have clear legal title, consult an attorney specializing in art law. Keeping records of all the due diligence you’ve performed can help if the case ends in litigation.

Last updated Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

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